Picture this. You're a member of the bar in good standing in some other state. You have a trial scheduled in two months. Your lease isn't up for another year. Your legal malpractice insurance and continuing education requirements are all up to date. And you get a phone call from your spouse who is in the military: "Honey, I'm being transferred to California."
According to the Military Spouse JD Network, MSJDN, a group formed by military spouses frustrated with the challenges of maintaining a legal career that seemed incompatible with the military lifestyle, there are more than 1,000 military spouses from all branches of the military who are bar certified attorneys. When the military transfers their spouses from one state to another, these lawyers face big headaches trying to practice law in the new state.
Last year, the offices of the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force issued a memorandum to the National Governors Association, asking the states to consider reciprocity of professional licensure for military families, pointing out that these families move often and that a frequently cited drawback to military service is the difficulty for military families to relocate when the military family member is transferred. The memorandum states that spouses in professionally licensed fields such as the law face challenges due to delays or the cost of transferring a license to a new state or jurisdiction, and that eliminating or mitigating these barriers will improve quality of life for our military families. In 2012, the American Bar Association urged states to adopt rules, regulations and procedures that accommodate the unique needs of military spouse attorneys who move frequently in support of the nation's defense. That same year the Conference of Chief Justices passed a resolution urging bar authorities in each state to consider rules permitting admission without examination for attorneys who are dependents of service members and are already admitted to practice law in another state or territory.
Effective March 1, both the California State Bar and the Judicial Council adopted rules for military spouses, including those in civil unions and registered domestic partners, to practice law in California without having to take the state's notoriously difficult, time-consuming, and expensive bar exam. The State Bar rules are found in Rules of the State Bar, Title 3, Sections 3.350-3.356, and the Judicial Council's rule is California Rules of Court, Rule 9.41.1.
California requires military spouse lawyers to be supervised by an attorney who assumes professional responsibility for any work performed by the registered military spouse attorney. The supervising attorney must provide a declaration of responsibility to the State Bar, and thereafter directly supervise the military spouse attorney, approve in writing any appearance in court or any deposition or any arbitration or any proceeding and then review such activities with the supervised attorney. In addition to assuming professional responsibility for the lawyer, the supervising lawyer must also "read and approve any documents prepared by the registered military spouse before their submission to any other party." It sounds as if a registered military spouse can't even send an email to another party's lawyer without approval.
Supervising a military spouse attorney to that extent might very well result in a member of the California Bar concluding, "it's easier for me to just do it myself." In fact, a similar supervision requirement in Virginia has resulted in military spouse attorneys being unable to find a sponsor.
A military spouse attorney on the job hunt is unable to register with the State Bar to practice under its new rules without the declaration of the supervising attorney. But while job hunting, there is no supervising attorney. Even under the best of circumstances, there is a delay in receiving income while the wheels of bureaucracy slowly turn. Plus, it is not likely many would hire an attorney before the attorney is registered with the State Bar. Another job applicant with a license in hand will likely be the one to land the job. The supervision requirement is especially difficult for lawyers new to California without an established network of contacts.
Another problem for the military spouse attorney is how they may claim their years in practice. In many states, lawyers do not have to take the bar examination if they have practiced a set number of years. If one is required to act only under the supervision of a member of the California Bar, is one actually practicing law under California's special admission registration for military spouse attorneys? It's unclear.
In April 2012, Idaho became the first state to approve a military spouse licensing accommodation. Of the 36 states and territories that have established special rules for military spouses to temporarily practice law, many have less onerous requirements than California. Florida's Rule 21-4.1 requires that a committee establish a mentor network and that the military spouse attorney must either be employed by or in a mentorship relationship with a member of the Florida Bar. Arizona's Rule 32-4302 provides reciprocity to military spouses who are members of another state's bar. Illinois's Rule 719 provides a temporary license for the military spouse to practice law. Under Rule 1:27-4, New Jersey issues a temporary license to practice law to a military spouse who works for a New Jersey lawyer or firm or who has engaged in the practice of law in another state for five out of the previous eight years.
Accommodating the unique needs of military spouse lawyers does not cost much, but greatly contributes to the well-being of military families by eliminating real barriers to smooth transitions from one state to another. It's good to see California provide some accommodation to military spouse attorneys, but few if any other state's rules are as rigorous and restricting as those adopted in California. MSJDN's website says that California's supervision requirements stigmatize military spouse attorneys already facing an estimated 28 percent unemployment rate. It is too bad California does not do more to ease the unique mobility burden of military spouse lawyers.